The accidental launching of a Hsiung Feng III supersonic anti-ship missile by the navy has caused an uproar in Taiwanese society. It has also thrown a new variable into the cross-strait relationship — already in a critical state — and drawn a lot of negative coverage from international media. This is the most serious crisis President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) has had to deal with since taking office.
It has gifted China an easy opportunity to criticize Taiwan and has opened the potential for China to take action against Taiwan.
China might be about to make one or more of the following hostile moves against Taiwan to intimidate Tsai and force her government to capitulate over the so-called “1992 consensus.”
First, Beijing might decide to comprehensively expand and give a high priority to its monitoring operations of Taiwan. The erroneously launched missile landed in waters surrounding Penghu County’s Dongji Island (東吉嶼). Despite landing some distance from Xiamen, in China’s Fujian Province, the missile’s flight path appears to have been aligned straight in the direction of Xiamen and this has frayed nerves and caused anger in Beijing.
China’s Taiwan Affairs Office (TAO) Minister Zhang Zhijun (張志軍) issued a stern rebuke, saying: “This incident is extremely serious, Taiwan must provide an explanation and assume responsibility for the missile launch.”
The statement shows that Beijing is enraged and extremely unhappy over the incident. The missile was fired on the day that China was celebrating the Chinese Communist Party’s 95th anniversary, and the incident has added to the anger within Chinese government circles and among the wider Chinese public.
Therefore, China might decide to comprehensively expand its monitoring operations to cover all of the Taiwan Strait, including Taiwanese-controlled waters. Beijing would be motivated to do this to uphold security, intimidate and send a warning to Taiwan and also to prevent a repeat of the incident and quell the anger felt by its citizens.
Second, China might seek to realign and increase military deployments. Both Chinese officials and the wider public have worked themselves up into a frenzy over the accidental missile launch.
To prevent and contain any further perceived military provocations against China, Beijing might decide to step up its military deployments so that its armed forces are ready to respond to any surprise attacks or developing security threats. It might be conjectured that China will move to strengthen and enhance its military deployments along its southeastern shores — to guard against aggression from Taiwan — in addition to the East and South China sea shores to prevent an attack from either a large power or a small nation.
Beijing might also decide to increase the number of high-precision weapons systems, observation and communication posts, radar cover and reconnaissance operations in the region.
Third, China might decide to exert more pressure on Taiwan since the missile incident has provided Beijing with the ideal opportunity to ratchet up pressure and intimidate the Tsai administration.
Both Zhang and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) have called on Tsai to acknowledge the “1992 consensus” and endorse its “core implications,” otherwise, they said the deadlock over the cross-strait relationship would continue, as would the severance of all official and semi-official communication and negotiations between Taiwan and China.
The TAO has gone further, saying the onus is on Taiwan to restore the relationship.
This incident might be seized by Beijing as an excuse to apply more political pressure on Taiwan, but it might also encourage China’s leaders to indulge their impulses and resolve to use force against Taiwan. Tsai’s administration must make a clear statement to both China and the international community so that the facts of the situation are correctly understood to protect the nation’s security.
Fourth, China might try to manipulate international opinion. Immediately after the incident, Zhang’s statement, the condemnation in Chinese media and the deliberate actions of Chinese netizens — who have used the incident to criticize and malign Taiwan — made it clear that in addition to issuing warnings and threats to Taiwan, China would use any means at its disposal to influence the international community and damage Taiwan’s standing as Beijing tries to manipulate the international media into reporting on the incident and create the false impression that Taiwan’s military forces are badly trained and poorly led, lacking in discipline, corrupt and close to disintegration.
This would be a serious blow to the reputation and capability of Taiwan’s armed forces, and the military must immediately work to restore and improve discipline and training within its units, lest it have a serious impact on any future arms purchases and military cooperation with Taiwan’s allies.
The crisis caused by the accidental missile launch has revealed serious deficiencies within the military and shone a light on threats to Taiwan’s national security. As it always does, Beijing has pounced on the opportunity to make hostile moves against Taiwan.
The task facing the military is to cement the concept of rule of law within military ranks, improve morale, discipline and introduce operation and governance structures based on the rule of law. Only then would Taiwan’s military be able to improve its combat readiness, protect national security and restore public faith in and respect for the military.
Success or failure lies in the hands of the military: It must seriously and carefully get on with the business of reform.
Li Hua-chiu is a researcher with the National Policy Foundation.
Translated by Edward Jones
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